The Ruins [DVD]
Director : Carter Smith
Screenplay : Scott B. Smith (based on his novel)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Jonathan Tucker (Jeff), Jena Malone (Amy), Shawn Ashmore (Eric), Laura Ramsey (Stacy), Joe Anderson (Mathias), Sergio Calderón (Lead Mayan), Jesse Ramirez (Mayan Bowman), Balder Moreno (Mayan Horseman), Dimitri Baveas (Dimitri), Patricio Almeida Rodriguez (Taxi Driver)
The Ruins is a character study wrapped in horror trappings that has too little of the former and just the right amount of the latter. Screenwriter Scott Smith, who adapted his own novel, is attempting to do the roughly same thing that he did with his debut novel A Simple Plan, which Sam Raimi made into an absolutely harrowing and engrossing film that I thought was the best of 1998. Smith gives you a fundamentally simple premise--in this case, four vacationing Americans who willfully wander off the beaten path in the jungles of Mexico and find themselves trapped atop an ancient Mayan pyramid--and uses it to depict the slow but sure breakdown of humanity under pressure. Not having read the novel I can’t comment on how well this works on the page, but director Carter Smith is unable to wring much out of the premise on screen. It ends up feeling too much like every other recent horror movie in which young, beautiful people suffer terribly, ghastly violence.
Structurally The Ruins evokes the Hostel films, with their twisted fairy-tale morality about not straying too far and the inevitable consequences of a consequences-be-damned attitude. In this case, we get four vacationing Americans just out of college and on the cusp of beginning their adult lives: Jeff (Jonathan Tucker), who is off to medical school; his girlfriend Amy (Jena Malone), an aspiring photographer; Stacy (Laura Ramsey), Amy’s best friend; and her boyfriend Eric (Shawn Ashmore), who, well, has a beard. See where the problem lies? The characters are all well played by the talented young cast, but there is little or nothing there as far as their characters go. They are, with few exceptions, just like all the other interchangeable victims that populate most horror films: a dull mixture of immaturity and general vacuity. Perhaps their youth is supposed to make their inevitable suffering more tragic (which Smith attempts to punch home with a climactic speech), but it simply feels generic.
The production itself is more polished than most horror films of late, especially with the excellent cinematography by Darius Khondji (Seven), who evokes as much terror and claustrophobia in broad daylight as he does in darkness. First-time feature director Carter Smith creates genuine tension in several scenes (especially for those of us with a fear of heights and/or a fear of being lowered into unseen depths), and while the film has its share of abject gore (an anesthesia-free double amputation, one character slicing into herself with a hunting knife to get at real or imagined creepy-crawlies), he never rubs your nose in it for its own sake. The bloodiness is tied to a larger sense of hopelessness that defines the film’s relentless grind.
The story opens at a sunny resort in Cancun, where the four vacationers meet a genial German named Mathias (Joe Anderson), who asks them if they want to tag along with him the next day to meet his brother, who is at a new archaeological dig deep in the jungle. Ignoring warnings from the local taxi driver who refers to their intended destination as a “bad place,” they set off and eventually discover the ruins of the title: an enormous Mayan pyramid covered with vines. As soon as they get close, local villagers emerge from the jungle yelling and screaming. Despite the language difference, it soon becomes clear that the villagers don’t want the travelers to leave once they’ve set foot on the pyramid, and they encircle it with guns and bows. A “bad place,” indeed.
That is the basic set up, with the five potential victims trapped at the top of the ruins with precious little food and water and no way to get down without being shot. Of course, there’s more, which they discover once they venture down into the maw of the pyramid to find what they think is a ringing cell phone. To tell you exactly what the threat is would spoil part of the film’s effectiveness, which is the slow burn of horrible discovery. However, I will say that the film’s monster (for lack of a better word) is one of those creations that you either buy into completely or think is absolutely ridiculous. If you accept the premise, it’s a genuinely creepy evocation of the natural world gone decidedly wrong, and the utter and complete lack of explanation will likely irritate as many as it fascinates. I, for one, tend to like less explication in such situations because justification in horror movies too often kills the thrill. Sometimes it’s better not to know.
|The Ruins Unrated DVD|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish|
|Distributor||Paramount Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||July 8, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The anamorphic widescreen transfer of the unrated version of The Ruins looks very good, with sharp edges, strong detail, and natural-looking colors. As a horror film, The Ruins is somewhat unique in the fact that much of it takes place in broad daylight, which is used to enhance the grisly details in the film and create an unrelenting sense of bright claustrophobia. However, there are plenty of scenes that take place in shadowy darkness, including the opening sequence inside the temple, which boast good black levels and shadow detail. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is also very good, with excellent use of the surround channels to enhance the jungle atmosphere and underscore the film’s unique, creeping menace.|
|The screen-specific audio commentary by director Carter Smith and editor Jeff Betancourt is a genial and informative affair, with the two asking each other questions and ruminating on the film’s production and its various challenges. The production is also highlighted in three making-of featurettes: “Making The Ruins” (16 min.) is a general look at the work that went into making the film, from the location shooting in Austalia, to the special effects, to the motivation for the actors; “Creeping Death” (16 min.) focuses specifically on the prosthetic special effects used to create the vines (which were, interestingly enough, based on pumpkin vines) and, of course, all the grisly violence; and “Building the Set” (6 min.), a brief look at the full-scale Mayan temple, the set for the top of the temple, and the various studio sets used to create its interiors. The featurettes include interviews with Smith, a number of the producers (including Ben Stiller), and the members of the cast, as well as production designer Grant Major and special make-up effects supervisor Jason Baird. Also included are the original theatrical trailer, as well as three deleted scenes and an alternate ending, all of which are available with optional commentary by Smith and Betancourt (all are presented in anamorphic widescreen). Because the alternate ending (which is just barely different from the theatrical ending) has been inserted as part of the “unrated edition” on this disc, the original theatrical ending is also included here.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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